Australia’s New Human Rights Commissioner

NIKITA BYRNES | NEWS



Australia’s government appointed a new Human Rights Commissioner in September 2021, and many have criticised the move. Nikita Byrnes explains why.


On a relatively calm day on September 5th 2021, the federal Attorney-General appointed a new Human Rights Commissioner: her name is Lorraine Finlay, and many have expressed major concerns over Finlay’s appointment, including this year’s Australian of the Year, Grace Tame.


Prior to her new office, Finlay worked as a legal academic and lecturer in criminal law at Murdoch University in Perth. Her profile on the Murdoch website states that her areas of research interest include “criminal law, constitutional law, human rights law and public international law.” Before her time at Murdoch, however, she worked as a State Prosecutor in Western Australia, and before that at the High Court of Australia. She has also taught within the International Human Rights Law Program in Geneva.


Because of her work, Finlay has had an impressive career that has earned her many teaching and research awards, including Dean’s Service Awards and the Dean’s Research Prize Commendation. To many, Finlay seems impressively trained and educated, a perfect fit for one of Australia’s most important public offices.


The federal Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash, stated that, “As Human Rights Commissioner, Ms Finlay will be responsible for protecting and promoting traditional rights and freedoms in Australia.” If that sounds vague to you, you’re not the only one. The office of the Human Rights Commissioner has a wide range of responsibilities, but importantly investigates complaints about violations of human rights, advocates for consideration of human rights in statute, and scrutinises Australia’s execution of its international human rights commitments.


While the Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) website has posted that the “Commission welcomes [Finlay’s] appointment,” senior staff within the commission itself have apparently expressed unease that the federal coalition appointed Finlay without the role first being advertised, once Edward Santow began winding down his five-year term in the office.


Finlay is quoted as saying: “I am honoured to be appointed as the Human Rights Commissioner and am looking forward to building on the substantial contributions made by my predecessors in the role.”


Social researcher Rebecca Huntley, writing for The Guardian, wrote that Finlay’s appointment was “questionable,” because of her relative lack of experience. She writes: “Australia is replete with more senior and expert academics, practitioners and advocates who I believe would have been better appointments as human rights commissioner.” So the question arises: why Finlay over anyone else? The government has not provided an answer.


Grace Tame agrees with Rebecca Huntley. Tame immediately criticised the move by the Attorney-General at a Women’s Safety Summit, saying it was a “grave mistake.” Tame highlighted many of Finlay’s right-leaning political views. Finlay has previously expressed apprehension regarding affirmative-consent laws, which many activists, including Tame, have been working towards for a year. Not only has she co-written an article with men’s rights activist Bettina Arndt, but Finlay has also expressed concerns with an Indigenous voice to parliament in 2019, arguing that it would be a “form of political segregation.”


Rodney Croome, the head of LGBTQ+ activism organisation, Just Equal, said that Finlay’s appointment may reverse years of advocacy work. Croome cited Finlay’s submission to the Ruddock religious freedoms inquiry in 2018, in which she co-authored a document that argued against an “unjustifiable” imbalance between religious freedoms and anti-discrimination laws.


When speaking to RN Breakfast, Tame said: “We’ve had a new human rights commissioner appointed… who has ties to the Liberal party dating back ten years. She is also against affirmative consent – enthusiastic consent – and as well, she has publicly supported the commentator who platformed the twice-convicted paedophile who abused me.”


It seems, then, that Finlay’s own views – for example, her stances against affirmative consent, her issue with an Indigenous voice to parliament, and her support of Tame’s own abuser – would highlight how paradoxically unfit she is for an extremely important office; it is not only an important office in Australia, but also internationally.


A spokesperson from the AHRC confirmed that the commission is currently accredited with an “A status” under the United Nations Paris principles, and that the accreditation would be reviewed next year. This is a significant indicator of Australia’s reputation on the international scale, and many are wondering if Finlay could ultimately defame that.


Tame argued that Finlay’s appointment proved the Morrison government’s “inability to understand these issues – its inability to address the fundamental issue of women’s safety.” The Attorney-General hit back in a statement to the ABC, saying that “to suggest that Ms Finlay will be anything but a fierce advocate for women is completely unfounded.”


I’m sorry, Ms Attorney-General, but our fears are founded in clear, hard-hitting evidence. That the announcement hardly made national news headlines was an issue in and of itself, and likely shows how controversial the government knew the appointment would be. The government was probably proud of itself for hiring another woman; they still don’t realise that you’ve got to hire women who aren’t against other women and minorities, especially in such a significant role that is supposed to protect them.